Dismantling Structural Racism: Kwesi Aikins on Politics in a Postcolonial Society

By Nia Abram

KwesiThe sun shone bright as the hot pavement carried us to our next destination. We shuffled into a cozy room, as our Heidi and Aishah chatted with their colleagues. From my seat at Each One Teach One, I could peer around the corner into a quaint colorful library. The library houses books written by Black authors, functioning as a historical archive for Black people. The room in which we were sitting is also home to several afterschool events and learning opportunities for Black children and adults. When the chattering settled, our teacher for this afternoon—Joshua Kwesi Aikins—stepped forward.

IMG_8989Aikins is an academic and political activist who has been active in the Afro-German movement, such as Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland (Initiative of Black People in Germany), for the last 15 years. His roots lie in Ghana, thus he does activist work in Ghana, as well. Eloquently, he illustrated the inner workings of his political activist framework by emphasizing that theoretical reflection—which yields epistemic, analytical, and political benefits—can be an effective methodology for this kind of activism. His emphasis on epistemology reminded me of Maisha Eggers’ “Knowledges of (Un) Belonging: Epistemic Change as a Defining Mode for Black Women’s Activism in Germany.” In this article, Eggers tracks the ways in which Black women in Germany have used their own production of knowledge to dismantle the present “racialized knowledge.” As a result, epistemic change has facilitated social and political change inside and outside of the Black empowerment movement. Along these lines, Aikins and the activists alongside him have been lobbying the United Nations (UN) to make use of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), and they have had some success. Aikins has presented his collaborative findings on discrimination of all types (e.g., LGBTQI of color, Turkish, Jewish, Blacks) to the UN, and they have decided to put pressure on the German government to make legislative change.

M-StrasseAfter giving us an introduction to his work, Aikins parsed out the specifics of the postcolonial structures that Germany retains. First, he defined the word coloniality as the notion that colonialism is embedded in our current society, noting that our societal structures cannot be boiled down to only colonialism. According to him, there are five symptoms of coloniality: Coloniality of Power, Coloniality of Knowledge, Coloniality of Being, Power of Ignorance, and Ignorance of Power. Of these five, the Coloniality of Knowledge is the most interesting to me. This, in Aikins’ words, is simply the hegemonic knowledge of the “dead men of five countries.” In other words, our body of knowledge has been created and established by white males from five main western countries. The Coloniality of Knowledge erases the fullness of history and strips marginalized people of writing their own stories. Philipp Khabo Köpsell echoes these sentiments in his poem “A Fanfare for the Colonized.” He writes, “O they will tell you of tradition/ of the mapping of the world/ of the mapping of your minds,” and then colonizers will deny the consequences of their actions. Köpsell goes on to write, “Is this what it is? Like this?/ We can’t read the script? Like this?/ We don’t write our own stories?/ We can’t navigate in landscapes/ where the white men claim of glory?/ Motherfuckers we have maps too!” Both Aikins and Köpsell emphasize the eradication of the Black narrative from colonial history that still occurs today.

May UferAlong these lines, Kwesi told us that Germany denies conducting genocide in Namibia to this day. Although it is technically the first genocide of the 20th century, people frequently overlook it. This denial seems oxymoronic when there are still street signs and subway stations with derogatory names targeted at black people that clearly signify Germany’s colonial past. For example, Mohrenstraße is a street name that still exists. Mohren’s latin root means “dark,” but it also means “stupid” and “heathen.” This word has been historically used to degrade Black people in order to uphold white supremacist power structures, and its usage in a public space is a constant reminder of German colonialism. In response, Aikins has worked with Berlin Postkolonial and the ISD has begun to change the names of street signs to those of historical Black figures. The first sign to be created was in commemoration of May Ayim. The prior street name, Gröbenufer, commemorated a white male colonialist, Otto Friedrich von der Gröben, who theorized the racist notion of colorism. When May Ayim’s new sign was installed, there was also a plaque installed that explains the history of the sign. Aikins notes that the point is not to erase history, but rather to document it from all perspectives.

IMG_8991Aikins concluded his lesson with a final articulation—we have the ability to make positive change. If we realize that history is layered with similar and distinct connections, we can track the transcendence of oppression through time. By doing this, we have identified the structural oppression at hand. This is the kind of oppression that is not only institutional and individual, but is also a layer of oppression that is socially shared, sustained, and reproduced through everyday culture, education, and media. However, I was confused as to how could we track our history as Black people when it is constantly being erased. Aikins responded explaining that although it is hard to piece together our history, it is becoming easier. More importantly, we can track our history through the ways we’ve resisted. This reminded me of the ways that the gay and lesbian communities remembered the Holocaust. For instance, in “The Pink Triangle and Political Consciousness: Gays, Lesbians, and the Memory of Nazi Persecution,”  describes this fragmented collective memory—gays and lesbians were so marginalized and traumatized from the events of the Holocaust that they were hard to discuss and remember. However, they were able to find a collective memory by wearing the Pink Triangle to resist the oppression they were facin. It seems that Aikins is prompting us to do the same, so as to rewrite history by filling in the erasures with the people, places, and experiences that we do have access to, which can even be in our own backyard.


NiaNia Abram is a rising junior, an Environmental Science major, and an avid dancer at Colorado College. She has lived in central New Jersey, Atlanta, California, and northern Jersey (in that order), but in the end, she calls north Jersey her home. Nia enjoys hiking and creative writing, as she often retreats to nature to write short stories and personal essays in her free time. Some of her favorite movies include Coming to America, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Mulan, Howl’s Moving Castle, and, of course, Harry Potter. She has taken an interest in Feminist & Gender Studies, and may have the opportunity to declare a minor. However, she hopes to use her knowledge as a feminist and an academic to address environmental justice issues through an intersectional lens. Optimistically, her future career will allow her to start a non-profit organization that brings environmental science and outdoor education to underprivileged urban girls through a program that teaches science, empowerment, and social justice.

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Our First Weekend in Berlin

In planning this course, I decided to include mandatory activities in the mornings and afternoons on weekdays so that the students and I could have our weekends “free” to explore the city. I did tell the FemGeniuses about most of the things I had planned in case they wanted to join me for some things. So, on Saturday, I planned to visit the Berlin Dungeon. The problem is that I didn’t pay attention to the fine print on the tickets, so I didn’t know that we shouldn’t wait in line for the English tour. So, we ended up missing it and had to come back on Sunday. That meant that I spent most of Saturday hanging with Celine.

Celine Pergamon Museum

Celine at the Pergamon Museum

First, we visited the Pergamon Museum. Even though Celine grew up in Berlin, she’s been enjoying some of our official tourist activities, because we both are learning a bit more about the “official” narrative of Berlin. This is importance, since we both are also invested in studying and teaching narratives that are often silenced in these spaces. Along these lines, we thought we may have invented the discipline Critical Tourism Studies, but I see now—after a quick Google search—that this already exists. Haha. The Pergamon Museum was full of lots of fascinating things that were “excavated” by Germans from various places and during various times. At one point, the woman in my headphones said something like, “This room is full of items from various times and various places in order to give you an idea of what a mansion might look like.” I thought that quite odd, but also quite telling about the ways in which Africa—the entire continent, of course—is still often constructed as a place outside of time or specificity. I didn’t take copious notes, but see pictures here!

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Stefani, Melissa, and Beril in their New Kitchen

On Sunday, the FemGeniuses moved from their two separate apartments into one. This is the apartment I planned for them live in for the entire course, but I booked them too late and had to separate them for the first week. I think they’re all glad to be together, and of course, the apartments are just as beautiful as they are when Tony and I visited them in November.

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Melissa and Kadesha in their New Bedroom

While the Zehdenicker Straße are a bit further from the classroom, they’re also a bit closer to me, and while the Greifswalder Straße students are a bit further from me, they’re also a bit closer to the classroom. So, this is really the ideal location.

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The FemGeniuses at Café Hilde for Brunch

We also had a group brunch at Café Hilde, which was really nice.

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Heidi, Casey, Kadesha, and Kaimara after the Berlin Dungeon Tour

Later, Casey, Kadesha, Stefani, Blaise, Melissa, Kaimara, and I went back to the Berlin Dungeon, which is “a 60 minute journey into 700 years of Berlin’s horrible history.” Yes, 700 years in one hour. I got the sense from visiting the website that this was a semi-scary, amusement-park type place, but it was scarier than I thought. People jumped out at us in scary costumes. We were “trapped” in a maze of mirrors. A butcher locked us in a dark room where fake knives poked us in our chairs. Yes, it was something else. At one point, we entered a mock courtroom in which Stefani was put on trial for “murdering the fashions” in Berlin. That was pretty funny, but I think Stefani felt a bit strange being put on display. I think my son will enjoy this when he comes, but I think my daughter will be having none of it. Haha. I would share pictures, but we weren’t allowed to take them inside.

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Mutlu Ergün-Hamaz (Sesperado Lyrical Guerilla)

Later that evening, I met Celine’s family and we walked around Kreuzberg for a bit. We also visited the Roses for Refugees at Oranienplatz, which is organized by AfricAvenir International, AFROTAK TV CyberNomads, Berlin Postkolonial, Bühnenwatch, glokal, Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland, and Tanzania-Network. Roses for Refugees has been happening every evening at 6 pm from April 13 until June 21 in order to express solidarity with and show support for refugees. On this day, Mutlu Ergün-Hamaz (Sesperado Lyrical Guerilla) read poetry and a short story. At one point, he read, “Sometimes our brain races away from our soul.” Ever since then, I’ve been thinking about what this means for those of us committed to justice. I often find myself asking my students and myself to listen and to be compassionate—to not let our brains run away from our souls—as we think about ways in which we can try to change the world.

RfR III

Police Conducting Surveillance of Roses for Refugees

During his reading, I turned slightly to my left and noticed two police vehicles conducting surveillance of the park. I asked, “What are they doing here?” and Celine responded that they sit there 24/7, in shifts, watching the park, policing the refugees and their comrades. She told me that folks who sleep in the park aren’t allowed to have blankets and that the police will arrest and deport anyone who doesn’t abide by this and/or other unjust laws. This, of course, reminded me of Martin Luther King Jr.’s declaration that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” It seems, then, that police and government in Berlin, similar to what I know about the police and government in the United States, has allowed their brains to run away from their souls.

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Roses for Refugees

One of my new comrades in Berlin, Sharon Dodua Otoo, is an instrumental force for Roses for Refugees, and when I posted a short video of Mutlu reading his work in the park, she asked if the FemGeniuses would be interested in reading poetry on Wednesday night. In honor of the late Maya Angelou’s life, we’ll read from her work. In doing so, I hope that we remember more wise words from Mutlu—“Not because they’re evil but because they’re people.” It seems that part of the human condition entails denigrating, subjugating, marginalizing, victimizing, and hurting each other. Not because they’re evil but because they’re people. Not because we’re evil but because we’re people. I’ve come to the conclusion that the only other way to live is to fight, to resist. To know that we will live…fighting, resisting. To know that we will die…fighting, resisting. With a heavy heart, Celine and I—with Celine’s friend Ana—joined Melissa and Kaimara in order to attend an event honoring the life of the late Stuart Hall at the Balhaus Naunynstraße. I actually wasn’t aware of this event—Melissa found out about it after doing some research on Grada Kilomba—so I didn’t require the other FemGeniuses to attend. Also, I decided to let Melissa blog about it, so you can read more about it when I post it tomorrow or Wednesday. So for now, I’ll just end writing that I am truly honored to be here in Berlin learning so much and having an opportunity to also share my own knowledge. It really is helpful to know that we are not alone in the struggle.

More to come!

Heidi

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Paul Gilroy, “The Struggle against Racism in Britain (1976-2012): Its Implications for Justice and Democracy”

By Nicole Tan

Werkstatt

Werkstatt der Kulturen

Our running feet stopped when we saw the line ahead of us. A line that wound up being two flights of stairs with no end point in sight. This was the accumulation of Berlin dwellers, both temporary and permanent, eager to listen to what Paul Gilroy had to say about “The Struggle Against Racism in Britain.” This event was a microcosm of a larger conference at the Werkstatt der Kulturen which explored “the practices and norms of the justice system in our postcolonial world.”

Once we got in, the next struggle was finding somewhere to sit in the crowded, buzzing room. We were fortunate enough to grab the last handful of red pillows that we could place on the ground. It was prime viewing. From where I sat, Paul Gilroy’s face was blocked by the computer screen propped up to his side no matter which way I craned my neck. Fortunately, I was still within visible sight of his dreadlocks which communicated a message of their own, swaying from side to side every time he expressed an idea with more fervour.

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Paul Gilroy

I have no doubt that you’ve heard Winston Churchill’s famous phrase, “History is written by the victors.”This evening, Gilroy elaborated on this theme by considering the creation of historical knowledge. From here, came the question, who are historical actors? Who is given the right to create historical narratives?

Having grown up in a British colony myself, I found myself nodding along fervently in agreement with his argument that history is created by the dominant voices of the time. In school, I was taught about how Sir Francis Light had “founded” Penang. At home, I was told by my father that, in fact, Penang was stolen by Sir Francis Light from the Sultan of Kedah. When I asked my grandmother, who had grown up during the time of British colonisation, she assured me that the British had saved us from savagery, providing us with civilisation. So, the question is, who creates our history?

The act of colonisation both requires and is synonymous with the creation of racial hierarchies. In “Reclaiming Innocence,” Sharon Dodua Otoo argues that “the justification of the atrocities that racism […] and colonialism, required the extensive dehumanisation of people of African descent.”  The repercussions and implications of this belief is what our class has been exploring here in Berlin. With Heidi’s direction, we have looked at both the racism directed towards black soldiers who occupied Germany following the end of WWI and, by extension, children of these soldiers. Defined by dominant society as “occupation babies” and “Rheinland bastards,” the experiences of these individuals has been characterised by alienation, marginalisation and a sense of not belonging within Germany’s predominantly white society.

Gilroy then went on to explore the question, what exactly has changed in our postcolonial society? How is racism represented today? Given the focus of his talk, Gilroy considered the history of racial riots in Britain, comparing the riots of 1981 to the more recent ones of 2011.

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Paul Gilroy

Gilroy explained riots broke out all over Britain in 1981 due to racial discrimination. When the “sus” policy was introduced, police forces began stopping and searching “suspicious individuals” at will, the majority of whom were Black. However, when riots broke out all over Britain for similar reasons in 2011, they were not considered race-specific, rather they were interpreted as the end result of ungovernable gang power. From Gilroy’s perspective, the key difference here was the absence of a racial riot descriptor in 2011.

Why is this difference significant? In his talk, Gilroy described the “institutionalisation of racism.” Whilst the riots of 1981 were evidently rooted in explicit racial profiling, today racism has started to take more subtle forms. Parallel to the idea of attaining social mobility in pursuit of the American Dream, failure in Britain today is considered a matter of personal responsibility. Rather than recognise the absence of equal opportunities for individuals across different racial and ethnic groups, blame has been dispersed amongst the individuals themselves, perpetuating a far more subtle form of racism.

Paul Gilroy’s valuable insight into racism in Britain helped me draw parallels to the evolution of the Afro-German experience here in Berlin. At the end of the First World War, racism was seen in far more explicit actions like sterilisation programs for Black soldiers, programs evidently designed to prevent miscegenation or racial mixing due to a perception of Blacks as sub-humans, moral and incorrupt. Today, however, racism often presents itself in hidden forms. Throughout the literature of Afro-German women, we have come across the repeated and common experience of people being surprised that these women are able to speak such good German. Whilst this statement seems harmless, inherently it reflects the implicit assumption that only whites are Germans. Similarly, Afro-Germans like Ika Hugel-Marshall and May Ayim, recount the experience of being asked where they are from, implicitly assuming that Blacks do not belong to Germany and are solely temporary habitants.

The question now is what does racism look like today? Has the situation really improved or has it solely changed its form to become more subtle and instituionalised within our societal framework?

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NicoleNicole Tan is entering her second year at Colorado College. She is from Penang, Malaysia and currently lives in Auckland New Zealand.